I’m currently at a three day science communication and engagement workshop facilitated by Dialogue Matters and organised by the British Council, Newton Fund, and ASSAf (Academy of Science in South Africa). In honour of my involvement in this event and because I might (secretly) enjoy blogging, I’ve decided to do a short three part series on science communication and my experiences of it to date.
Some of the research that I’ve been working on around policy process and the Trafficking in Persons Act has shown that South Africans, generally, are incredibly reactive towards any information that gets shoved in their faces. We don’t tend to be proactive and find information out for ourselves, we wait for information to come to us via Facebook or Twitter and then, without verifying it, repost or retweet and come to bizarre conclusions about the world. Anyone remember Kony 2012? This is largely what happened with the moral panic* around trafficking in South Africa – those who shouted their ‘facts’ loud enough and presented them in a glossy enough way were believed and were able to make trafficking – a phenomenon of which there is no evidence in SA – part of the national conversation.
So there’s definitely a need for those of us doing methodically sound research to do a better job of telling people about it so that we can avoid or defuse moral panics. Some have also, however, suggested that it’s an obligation of those doing research to communicate it better, or at all. Philosophically, I agree. But on a practical level part of me wonders whether we can expect a bunch of socially awkward academics, in a time of budget cuts, increasing class sizes, and decreasing research funds to find the time to do more with their research findings.
Luckily for me, I’m on a fully funded position with no teaching load, and plenty of time to blog!
*For those interested:
For more on moral panics see Cohen, S. 1980. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson
‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.’